Friday 29 September 2023

Seawomen of colour: Where were they and why not?

In 40 years of researching seafarers’ histories on UK ships I’ve found very few women of colour. Was this somehow my error in researching?  Surely it was not an accurate picture?

Wrong. Speaking to Fazilette Khan (pictured) one of the few trail-blazers of women’s maritime history in the 1980's for #BlackHistoryMonth, it seems that yes, women of colour were indeed rare.

 The best known are:

  •  Fazilette herself, who was a radio officer from 1984, then electro-technical officer and finally an Environmental Officer
  • Belinda Bennett,now a captain, who began training in 1990. (See my video interview with Belinda for Lloyd’s register Foundation’s Rewriting Women into Maritime History Project: ).  


Fazilette (born 1960) worked at sea for 30 years. She still knows the industry well, because she networks as she campaigns for a better maritime environment (see #GreenSeasTrust:

Can she remember any other brown or black women colleagues on cargo vessels and tankers, (where she was often the only woman anyway)? No, she realises.

However on passenger ships from the 2000s she increasingly found a few women of colour. They included

  •  pursers’ department officers from South Asia, such as  a captain’s secretary and accountancy workers
  • tours department onboard staff who knew the countries being visited, such as Caribbean islands, or sold future cruises  
  •  housekeeping staff from the Philippines

The key question is how was the imbalance achieved? Did women of colour not apply, perhaps assuming they’d be blocked anyway? Or did schools and colleges fail to suggest such careers? Or did women train, but fall away after negative early sea experiences?


What about Fazilette’s own experiences of racism on board? She finds ‘I often can’t see whether the hostility was racism or sexism. It’s hard to tell the dividing line. You’re just getting negativity and you’ve got to deal with it.’ 

She was born and grew up in the UK. Her dad was a seafarer. Her mother Haida Khan was a renowned poet. Both supported her 'unusual' wish to go to sea

During her training at the Merchant Navy College in Greenhithe she was one of 3 women among 300 men on her course. ‘You learn to toughen up. You fight your corner.’ 

The hostility at that point was about gender. ‘After a while, it became water off a duck's back. Thinking back, it was probably quite character-building!’ The other two women were white, as were 98 per cent of the students. A few foreign male students from the Bahamas, Middle East were on short courses. 

Women at sea take care of all aspects of their personas so that they don’t get extra-victimized. Fazilette had thought ‘”Fazilette” sounded quite sweet - a bit of a pushover. But “Bobby” has a feisty resonance about it! It was actually my pet name since I was a kid. So on the tankers etc I was “Bobby”. And on the cruise ships I was “Fazilette”.’

She enjoyed the life, mainly. But on a tanker very early in her career she had a bad feeling even as she walked up the gangway: the only woman.  Men expressed hostility verbally and informally, mainly in off-duty moments. She identifies the slurs that she encountered as racial rather than gendered. 

But she was determined to carry on with her career. After all her years on investing in training she would not let a minority of bigots drive her out of the profession she had worked so hard for. 

Fed up with their constant goading, Fazilette decided to tackle the situation head-on. She used the analogy of the Klu Klux Klan's practice of hooded men burning crosses as they persecuted black victims to death in the US. 

As she stepped into the onboard bar one night in Rotterdam she challenged them from the threshold: ’Listen! Are you going to burn the crosses tonight? Or can I come in and sit in peace?’ 

They were quite taken aback, she recalls. ‘I don't know whether this was because I was no longer prepared to take it on the chin, or the fact that I was comparing their attitudes with such a prejudiced organisation. Either way, it worked!’

Her shipmates hadn’t realised that their so-called ‘banter’ was having a huge negative effect on her. Her challenge led to the racists backing off. Men even increasingly isolated the ring leader for his hostility too.

She tackled gender and race matters sassily. On a couple of documents that asked about her complexion she wrote ‘permanently tanned.’ 

One time, to halt a resentful but superstitious officer who was trying to make her life a misery, she made a BluTack voodoo doll in front of him. Quickly ‘he was cowering under the settee vowing to never bother me again. Sometimes having a thick skin and a smile like the Mona Lisa just isn’t enough!’

Fortunately Fazilette encountered many fair-minded shipmates over the years, who urged ‘give the girl a chance.’ (She was one of the pioneer non-Marconi operators, changing shipboard radio culture, which meant she faced discrimination on those grounds too.)

These days she’s seeking publication for an expanded version of the salty sailor articles she wrote for maritime magazine TradeWinds  in the 1990s.  

Learn more

  • her memorabilia are on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum’s ‘Life on Board.’ (pictured). Her artefacts are in the archive.
  •  See also 
  •  The National Maritime Museum’s Making Waves online exhibition features Fazilette’s story  as a campaigner against maritime pollution:


So what’s to be done about women facing racism on ships today? Many maritime professionals are working on diversity, equity and inclusion. See Maersk event this year (pictured), for example.

Fazilette thinks women need to assert themselves too. ‘Nowadays we are led to believe that our managers have the authority to deal with any and all problems. The reality is, it is simply not true.’

 As bigotry will continue, she advises women to do as she did and challenge the perpetrators. 'Don’t just complain to HR, who may not be effective enough. Deal direct with the men – even captains – who don’t play fair.’ She’s done so, and been surprised at how oppressors have backed down. Respect can indeed come.  

The off-the-record stories she’s told me show how much the tables can be turned by a brave challenger. But to my mind, systemic united team efforts, education, a changed culture, and enforced policies really help too.

I look forward to other women of colour getting in touch and telling me about life at sea for them before DEI policies began and sea women were even more isolated.

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